The world is fast becoming more urban: by United Nations estimates, more than half the global population resides in cities, with that proportion predicted to reach 66% by 2050.
This trend is already putting enormous pressure on governments in Australia and overseas to house and provide essential services to all their urban residents.
“Providing affordable housing to rapidly expanding populations is one of the biggest challenges globally, and a failure to do so could have disastrous consequences,” says Dr Hazel Easthope, from UNSW’s City Futures Research Centre. “This is an issue of the wellbeing of populations, the environment, and economic stability."
One of the most efficient ways for governments to meet ramped-up demand for housing is to build skyward, encouraging the construction of apartment blocks.
These require less land than sprawling, suburban expansions and detached houses, and can situate people closer to urban hubs and existing infrastructure.
“But it’s not simply a numbers game,” says Easthope. “These are going to be people’s homes and they need to be able to live in them comfortably.”
In addition to the design, construction, infrastructure and community services, there needs to be considerable attention paid to the social mix, and to fostering positive interactions between residents.
Easthope, a geographer and sociologist who studies social relationships, is examining factors that can lead to harmonious high-density living and its management, and is helping develop strategies that encourage cooperation and a sense of community inside apartment blocks, while avoiding neighbourly disputes.
These tensions can be petty, focusing on noise or smelly food, but also more serious, resulting from confusion about legal rights and responsibilities.
Under Australian strata law – which mimics similar ownership schemes around the world – people own their physical unit individually, but also jointly own the entire building. As such, they have to participate in the management of the property. The owner’s corporation in a strata scheme, which is made up of all of the owners, is responsible for setting and collecting levies to cover expenses, maintaining the property, and setting and enforcing by-laws to govern behaviour.
These laws can limit what is acceptable in common spaces, but might also constrain people’s freedom to do what they like with their own units, such as smoking inside and on balconies or doing renovations, says Easthope.
Easthope is working with several different high-density housing complexes across Sydney over a 12-month period, to monitor and assess how well strata property owners solve four important issues: encouraging more social interaction between residents, correcting structural defects, dealing with issues of overcrowding, and making upgrades to their buildings to improve energy and water efficiency.
“We want to identify the strategies that work in apartment living and management,” she says, “and ultimately develop tools that can be used in Australia and globally to make high-density living more comfortable and sustainable for residents.”